Considering that Jumanji started out in 1981 as a 32-page children’s picture book, it’s remarkable that any of its film adaptations have been successful at all. So following up on 2017’s surprisingly enjoyable Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, itself a reimagining of the 1995 Jumanji movie, was probably a task doomed to failure. In the 1995 film, Jumanji was a jungle-themed board game that unleashed its dangers on the real world; in Welcome to the Jungle, it became a video game that sucked players into its treacherous world. After coming up with that clever twist on the story, the filmmakers (including returning director Jake Kasdan and his co-writers Scott Rosenberg and Jeff Pinkner) largely just repeat the formula for Jumanji: The Next Level, which sends its main characters back into the video-game world of Jumanji, in a slightly different configuration.
The four teenagers of Welcome to the Jungle found themselves in the form of video-game avatars, battling their way out of Jumanji while working out their familiar (but relatively engaging) teenage issues. As The Next Level begins, jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), nerdy Spencer (Alex Wolff), artsy Martha (Morgan Turner) and perky Bethany (Madison Iseman) are all heading home for their first holiday break during their freshman year of college, eager to reunite. Spencer, however, is feeling insecure again (especially about his relationship with Martha), and he picks up the pieces of the destroyed Jumanji game so he can return to that world in the persona of confident adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson).
When Spencer’s friends discover what he’s done, they enter back into the game to rescue him, but Spencer’s grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s estranged ex-buddy Milo (Danny Glover) get sucked in along with them. So the main difference here is that the characters are inhabiting different avatars: Johnson and Kevin Hart spend three-quarters of the movie doing old-man impressions as Eddie and Milo, and Jack Black puts on a somewhat problematic voice as he embodies confident African-American football player Fridge. That leaves Karen Gillan with the thankless role of the pragmatic team leader, since Martha is the only one who ends up as the same character she played last time.
The story expands beyond the jungle setting of the previous movie to venture into a vast desert and snow-covered mountains, but the overall objective is the same, for the characters to retrieve a gem, defeat an uninteresting villain and escape back to reality before their avatars lose all three of their in-game lives. Since the teen characters largely resolved their differences last time, the filmmakers have to force Spencer to regress in his emotional development, and they also spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the completely uninteresting feud between former business partners Eddie and Milo. There are a handful of amusing moments, and Awkwafina adds a bit of freshness as a new game avatar, but most of the humor is recycled from the previous movie.
The effects-driven action set pieces are occasionally exciting but also have a familiar feel, with the characters on the run from dangerous animals across unpredictable terrain. The story drags on far too long for a purposefully basic adventure-game quest, and the resolution pretty much just puts the characters back where they started (with, of course, a stinger setting things up for another sequel). Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan remain charming, but whatever novelty existed in the refurbished premise has already worn away.